Re-Examining ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

Why the newly restored 1974 shocker is even more relevant today

By critical acclamation The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is unquestionably a masterpiece. That much, after 40 years of existing in the world, seems to be a simple undeniable fact. Though I wonder…do you love its pulpy horror or does the thought of watching it make you recoil? Either reaction is understandable and, maybe, even both at the same time.

For many cinephiles, critics and scary movie fans, the original 1974 Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper (who went on to make Poltergeist under Steven Spielberg’s supervision but never achieved these heights again) is the ne plus ultra of horror cinema. Yet it long ago transcended its genre. So, a print has been enshrined in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and in the most recent Sight & Sound critics poll, it was voted one of the 250 greatest films ever made.

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But I want to argue that it deserves even more respect—and dare I say, your respect. If you’ve never had the stomach to watch it, you really should. You owe it to yourself to see what the best of the genre looks like. If nothing else, take it as a challenge, but not as some of kind of crude test to see what levels of cinematic extremity you can handle. It deserves to be wrestled with, thought about, discussed. It should scare the living crap out of you, but leave you nourished after its vise of terror loosens its hold on your psyche.

The sole intention of a typical, good horror film is to scare an audience. When this happens, fans of this kind of cinema—often unfairly marginalized and seen as bloodthirsty gorehounds, much to their (our!) chagrin—delight in the sheer visceral experience. That is, more often than not, enough, and by that measure, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is great cinema.

Titles don’t get much more bluntly evocative than those five words, stitched together like one of Leatherface’s freaky masks made of human flesh and yet able to roll off the tongue with an ease befitting some sadistic poet’s best work. They promise the audience scares, buckets of blood and a relentless, inescapable nightmare. That the film not only delivers on that vow, perhaps even more so today, is one of its many enduring strengths.

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“When I was 14 I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre… I saw that film was an art form, meaning that I saw subliminal images. That’s when I realized the power of art: it’s not what you see, it’s what you think you see… That’s when it penetrates an audience. That’s when it goes deep. On the surface you watch like a brain, [and] you understand. But with subliminal images, or the thought of subliminal images, [that’s] when it has penetrated and the art has taken over your body.”

-Nicolas Winding Refn (The Treatment,Oct. 14, 2009)

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) speaks often of his love for the film. In the above video clip from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s hard not to find his admiration for the film, and its director, Tobe Hooper, endearing as all hell. Look beyond his palpable enthusiasm, though, and you’ll find an insightful, rich reading of the film. “Subliminal images” do abound in Texas Chain Saw Massacre. See it and you’ll you swear you witnessed graphic, gory violence. But did you?

At the beginning of the second act, a character is impaled on a large meat hook, left to suffer and dangle like a helpless fish snatched from the river. While this is happening, the film’s main villain, Leatherface, begins cutting up another victim. You think you see all of this happening; gore, blood and viscera splattering. You’re sure you saw it. Look closer at the scene, though, and it’s quite remarkable how little is violence is explicitly shown. It’s a sublimely constructed sequence, and not the only one. In fact, the titular cutting tool is never shown touching a person, save for Leatherface’s accident at the climax. Hooper mentions in the DVD commentary that he’s argued with countless people over the actual content of the film, to no avail.

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This is evidence of the way Refn says those images “penetrate an audience” and the art takes over your body. There is real power in Hooper’s skill as an image maker. He grabs the audience by the throat, never relents and forces the audience to experience his vision, for better or ill. Whether or not you enjoy the act of watching the film is purely subjective, but it’s hard to argue against the objectively effective craft on display from Hooper and his entire cast and crew.

In his 1974 two-star review, Roger Ebert attempted such an argument, stating that it’s “without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose.” And yet, several times he grudgingly acknowledges that it’s well-made: “In its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective… All of this material, as you can imagine, is scary and unpalatable. But the movie is good technically and with its special effects, and we have to give it grudging admiration on that level, despite all the waving of the chain saw.”

Laughably, Hooper was actually attempting for a PG-rating for the film, even asking the MPAA film board how he could attain that rating  AND still portray a woman hanging on a meat hook. As absurd as this sounds, it does explain the film’s lack of explicit violence. The horror and murder is obscured and mostly bloodless. Classy is not the right word, but compared to most horror movies, it’s pretty damn close.

There are other techniques worth mentioning. The editing by Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson plays a big part in sustaining the growing sense of fear and anxiety. It’s all about misdirection. Cuts often happen in the middle of an action, not the norm, giving the viewer a subconscious feeling of discomfort. The raw, grimy beauty of Daniel Pearl’s cinematography was born from his naiveté and inexperience (he was still a college student when the film was made). The most gorgeous shot in the film comes when the camera tracks behind soon-to-be victim Teri McMinn as she approaches Leatherface’s house, going under a bench to follow her as the house gets larger in the frame. The shot was improvised on set.

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 Though TheTexas Chain Saw Massacre is probably best appreciated as a sensory experience that takes advantages of cinema’s many unique tools, arguments have been made for various thematic and intellectual readings. What’s remarkable is how many of these particular readings by various scholars and critics are even more relevant today than when the film was released in 1974.

For example, Hooper apparently stopped eating meat while making the film and saw the crux of the film as being about meat. There’s something to be said for it as a pro-vegetarian film. There’s the sense that Leatherface’s murderous, cannibalistic clan is a scathing parody of modern American families gone awry. Existentially, it’s hard to escape the notion that the film is about the absurdity of life, random and seemingly without meaning. And it resonates politically: America was in a dark place during the film’s initial release, with racial tensions, a struggling economy, Vietnam and Watergate, and the apparent passing of the counter-culture, to name but a few issues. It’s fair to say things have only gotten more complicated and confusing, yet no horror filmmaker today has been able to capture so much of this complexity and fear as well as Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The best evidence of this may be the odd sense of sympathy for the film’s killers you have as the film unwinds.. After all, their piece of the American dream was taken away when their jobs at a slaughterhouse were rendered obsolete by technological advances. Who in this modern age of high unemployment and an intimidatingly fast devolving/evolving job landscape can’t understand that? There’s political satire buried in the subtext, where it belongs in a horror movie, and it makes for a rich experience beyond simply being scared.

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Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher.”

-Pauline Kael (Raising Kane, 1971)

Is it crazy that Refn (again, from the Cannes clip above) mentions The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the same breath as Orson Welles’ masterpiece? Both films, in their way, have endured through so much cultural, political, moral and cinematic change yet still remain fresh as ever. The years have been kind to both.

Why did Ebert feel he had to grudgingly admit his admiration for the film in that original review? As he stated, there’s “no motivation, no background, no speculation on causes is evident anywhere in the film. It’s simply an exercise in terror… What we’re left with, though, is an effective production in the service of an unnecessary movie.” Films by Lars von Trier, Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noe, to name a few, often receive this kind of half-hearted, faux-praise. There’s something dishonest about it. I’d rather the critic just toughen up and say they hate the damn thing. After all, how can a film be unnecessary if it’s well-made and effective? And for that matter, “unnecessary” to whom?

Ebert grew into a critic who appreciated a film for what it was doing compared to others of its type. But many mainstream critics fall into this trap all too easily. Pauline Kael, in her wonderful 1969 piece for the New Yorker entitled Trash, Art and the Movies, put it perfectly: “When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable.”

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fits neatly into a throughline of the best and/or most shocking horror films in film history. Start with Hitchcock’s Psycho, move to Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, then it’s on to Craven’s Last House on the Left and Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Once you arrive at Hooper’s film, you see the influence of those forebears had on him. Yet it’s undeniable how influential and copied Massacre has become.

The idea of the slasher movie as we still know it today truly started here, as did the idea of the final girl. Without it, we wouldn’t have Alien, Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, and so many others, not as we know them today. Its documentary rawness gave it a realism which in turn led to a new sub-genre known as found footage. During the opening credits of Massacre, a narrator claims the film was based on a true story (it wasn’t, though like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, it was inspired by serial killer Ed Gein). In 1996, the Coen Brothers received a lot of press (and a screenplay Oscar) for their similar, “original idea” regarding Fargo. Sorry Coens, I love you, but Hooper did it first.

Back to that Ebert review: in his closing paragraph, he writes,  “Horror and exploitation films… provide a good starting place for ambitious would-be filmmakers who can’t get more conventional projects off the ground. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre belongs in a select company of films that are really a lot better than the genre requires. Not, however, that you’d necessarily enjoy seeing it.” He’s right that it’s much better than the genre requires, but he’s wrong that nobody would enjoy watching it. The only proof of that needed is the reason this article was written, because the film is still showing at movie theaters in 2014. That’s worth celebrating, and experiencing the terror all over again.

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The new 4K digital restoration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre screens for a weeklong run at The Hollywood Theatre starting today. For more information, check the Web site.

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